The Challenge

The Institutes is a not-for-profit educator to the insurance industry, and for decades they produced textbooks one at a time.  While their process was effective at producing completed textbooks, it was slow.  Each textbook stood alone as a product; applying changes across all products was so time-consuming that it was impractical, and reusing textbook content in other formats such as web-based training or student flashcards was a tedious, manual process. The process of producing a new textbook was so onerous that for ten years leading up to 2006 the organization had not produced a single new product. In 2006 The Institutes had a change in leadership, and the new CEO described a new vision for how the organization would produce content, creating a whole new realm of opportunities to create products and services that had been impractical before. The Institutes engaged Jacquette Consulting to help make this new vision a reality, and over the course of three years we did just that and built the Content Management System (CMS.)  The results completely changed the way The Institutes created products and launched them into a new cycle of growth.

The Concept

The new approach was simple in concept:  all new content would be produced as learning objects. Each learning object is a reusable piece of content that encapsulates a learning objective (e.g., “At the conclusion of this module the student will understand the claims process.”), the educational content to teach that learning objective, and assessments that measure the student’s understanding of the content in the learning object.  The teaching material can be text, video, audio, or images; the assessment tools are test questions. Gone were the days of writing a book as a single narrative, with each chapter tightly coupled or interwoven with the other chapters. Now each piece of content had to stand alone, which opened up a whole world of possibilities.  Content could now be reused across different textbooks, or incorporated into a web-based training module, or even put into flashcards to help a student prepare for an exam. In addition, content was separated from appearance.  No longer would the author determine the typeface, size, or style; instead, the author would choose semantic descriptions for text similar to the styles in Microsoft Word.  Instead of “Arial 14 point bold”, the author would select “title” or “body text”. When it came time to include the content in a textbook or online training module, the content would take on the appearance dictated by the channel through which it was being delivered. The separation of content from appearance has other benefits as well.  Changing the layout style across multiple textbooks used to be a tedious, laborious task that involved opening up hundreds of Adobe InDesign files and manually changing the layout in each one.  Now the layout editors could define a new layout and, with a few mouse clicks, re-generate every product to fit the new design.  This not only made it easier for The Institutes to apply new layouts and branding to all of their products, but it also made it practical for the organization to offer customized products with customer-specific design and layout.

Component Selection and Implementation

This was by far the largest project we had ever undertaken, and it required strong project manager and business analysis skills, multiple technical architects and developers, a test team, and documentation specialists. The Institutes CEO had aligned his entire organization around this project, so that made our challenge much simpler.  With a clear vision driven from the top, constant access to and involvement of the executive team, and the resources to make it happen we were able to complete this project together.  If any one of those elements had been missing the project would have gone off the rails quickly. The project had two major pieces.  The first piece consisted of understanding and streamlining the existing process for creating and publishing content.  The existing process had evolved over many years and was constrained in several places by the available technology.  With the learning object model and modern technology, we were able to design a much faster and more effective process for creating content. The second piece consisted of selecting, integrating, and customizing the technology needed to implement the new process. At the heart of the system is a content management repository.  Our team looked at several different options, including MarkLogic, RSuite, SharePoint, and Documentum.  In the end, only Documentum had the capabilities that the system needed, so that became the basis for the CMS. The team decided that authors would create content using DITA, the Darwin Information Typing Architecture.  DITA is an information model that enables content creation and, with the DITA Open Toolkit, publication.  DITA is itself an additional layer on top of XML, a markup language that enables the separation of content from appearance.  XML isn’t exactly the easiest thing to work in, so for content creators we chose Microsoft Word as the editing tool. Although Word isn’t ideal for editing XML, users are familiar with it and the concept of Word “styles” maps nicely to the same concept in XML. Layout editors needed more direct access to the XML, so for them we chose XMetaL.  Lastly, we needed a tool that would simplify the publishing of the completed materials to PDF files; for that we chose TypeFi Publish. To develop online training, we used Adobe Flash; in later cycles we replaced Flash with HTML5 as the output for online content. Once we had all of the components we developed software to integrate the pieces, enable the processes The Institutes needed, and enhance the usability of the system for the end users. While this sounds straightforward the devil is in the details, so the analysis, design, implementation, and testing of all of these components made up the majority of the project.

The Outcome

The CMS enabled a whole new model for creating and delivering new products. From 1996 to 2006 The Institutes created no new products, but in each year after we deployed CMS they produced more and more new products. In 2014, they produced 144 new products, an average of twelve a month. Revenue increased from $20 million at the beginning of the project to $44 million in 2014, and at the time of this article’s writing they continue to grow and are expanding into international markets.